by Dr Stephen Baker
It has been clear for some time that Brexit represents one manifestation of a more existential crisis facing the UK. In the wake of Boris Johnson’s election as Tory leader and British Prime Minister, Dr Stephen Baker explores the prospects for radical change in times of constitutional and political uncertainty, arguing that the Left can and should be setting the agenda.
The DUP leader Arlene Foster is reported as having come out in favour of a ‘patriotic charter’ that proposes to make Remembrance Day a national holiday; to examine the business case for a toll-free road bridge between Ireland and Great Britain; and establish a new cultural institution in Northern Ireland.
The ‘charter’ is part of a broader programme put forward by the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange, which argues that the UK Government should pursue ‘a Grand Strategy to modernise the United Kingdom, drawing on the strength of the Union to stimulate local areas through both an audacious programme of infrastructure investment and further devolution of powers. It should take an approach that builds upon the success of City Deals, devolution deals and other partnerships.’
Johnson the moderniser?
The proposals come in the wake of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tour of the ‘awesome foursome’, as he calls them; better known to the rest of us as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He promises that his premiership will unite the UK and unleash its productive power.
We have heard this sort of modernising, energising rhetoric before. On his election, Tony Blair promised a ‘new Britain’ at the heart of which would be the creative industries. In the end, he succumbed to people’s princesses and foreign wars, and the creative industries turned out to be a bastion of the well-networked middle class.
Boris Johnsons’ claim to modernising is even less convincing, given that he and his Cabinet represent the copper-fastening of privately educated entitlement and power, personified in the appointment of the antediluvian and patrician Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons.
Others in the Cabinet – Dominic Raab, Liz Truss, Priti Patel – swallowed the Thatcher play-book and now appear intellectually and politically impervious to how catastrophic its prescriptions will be in a world confronted by climate catastrophe and growing social inequality.
#Indyref2 and break-up of Britain
It is hard then to imagine how the UK will survive a Boris Johnson Brexit and premiership. It was already in poor shape, with its sclerotic democracy; twee royal pageantry; ossified class-system, served by elite schools; its mythical Greatness and crumbling welfare state.
This is the class system that has produced the morbid political clique currently leading Brexit. They owe their political lives and material advantages to that socio-political system. They are not about to modernise it. Indeed, their buccaneering, free-market zealotry – Britannia unchained, free of the regulatory shackles of EU membership – is the latest attempt to preserve it. In all likelihood it will hasten the UK’s disintegration.
A poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft in the wake of the new PM’s visit to Edinburgh suggests that a narrow majority of Scots want a second referendum on the question of independence and willing to vote to leave the UK, 52% to 48%. That may be very slim majority upon which to carry out such major constitutional change, but it was enough to trigger Article 50 and may yet carry the UK out of the EU.
If the Scots decide to exit the UK, then by happy coincidence most Conservative Party members seem relaxed about their leaving. A recent YouGov poll found that a majority of the Tory grassroots – presumably overwhelmingly English Tories – would rather Brexit happen, even if it means Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the Union.
Poor Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, once touted as a future UK Prime Minister such was her popularity within the party, has now become the most unpopular senior Conservative among the Tory membership; her criticism of Boris Johnson and refusal to support a no-deal Brexit besmirching her reputation.
So strained are relations between Davidson and the Conservative party leadership at Westminster, one commentator has asked whether Davidson would be better to endorse and lead a breakaway Conservative party in Scotland. These are strange times to be a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party.
Ireland to follow suit
Across the Irish Sea, Arlene Foster seems to share few of Ruth Davidson’s reservations about Boris Johnson and the neo-Thatcherite English nationalists leading the UK out of the EU. This is hardly surprising. The DUP’s preference for tub-thumping populism and a conservative brand of Britishness made it a natural ally of the Brexit project with its promise to reboot British greatness.
But on the question of Brexit, the DUP are out of step with most voters in Northern Ireland, the region the party assumes to lead and to speak on behalf of at Westminster. On top of this, many find the DUP’s illiberal policies and exclusive social imagination repellent, although such hard-line attitudes have served the party well at the polls, regularly firing up its base and returning it as the largest Unionist party at successive elections.
However, this electoral success has come at the expense of Unionism’s broader goal of securing Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. How many people in the North are now looking South, and see Irish unity as a route back to the EU and away from a parochial politics inured to Biblical fundamentalism?
How many people in Northern Ireland feel that Brexit, far from ‘taking back control’, has brought into sharp focus the region’s relative powerlessness in the face of a more assertive English identity?
How many of them are thinking that they (and by extension their communities, their region) would have more political power and influence within a united Ireland than a United Kingdom? We can only surmise. Because the only way to know for sure – whether we like it or not – is to hold a border poll.
Setting the agenda from the Left
After the EU referendum in 2016 and its bitter aftermath, many people will not relish the thought of more referenda. But we don’t get to choose the circumstances in which we make history.
If preparations are being made for a no-deal Brexit, as they should be, then preparations also need to be made for the constitutional fall-out. The Left can and should take the initiative here.
If the EU referendum was essentially a civil war within the British Conservative Party and so the public conversation was dominated by voices from the political right, the Left has got to set the agenda of any future referenda.
That means major constitutional questions should not be determined by appeals to blood and belonging, nostalgic evocations, or the lies and propaganda of the rich. Any hint of this will be deeply divisive, as the EU referendum in the UK has demonstrated.
The debate has to be about the quality of people’s citizenship; about the right of people to homes, free healthcare and education, environmental justice, rights at work … and that’s just to start with.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at the West Belfast Féile that a united Ireland would mean a “different state” with a “new constitution”, he might have thought that he was issuing a warning. It is, in fact, an aspiration. The task must be to build a new state committed to social justice and equality. No-one should campaign or vote for anything less.
Dr Stephen Baker is a Lecturer in Film & Television Studies at Ulster University and a longtime trade union activist.